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Pay for Your Own Rescue

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

I have something to say to all those people who take dumb risks and then expect the rest of us to pick up the tab: Pay for your own stupid mistakes.

Almost every day rescuers save someone somewhere in America.


Sometimes rescuers put their own lives on the line. When climbers on Mt. Hood fell into a crevasse, a military helicopter flew to the rescue. The copter crashed, and the pilot had to be rescued.

Often the rescued are in trouble simply because they took foolish risks.

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"I fell down the hill. I really don't know what happened, but luckily, I got stopped by a tree before I fell off," one inebriated-looking man said on my special "You Can't Even Talk About It."

Some hike into treacherous weather with no warm clothing. Some go biking on the edge of a mountain. The Internet is crammed with examples of risky behavior.

Even mundane sports are treacherous if people are careless. Every winter people go ice fishing on Lake Erie. Some use airboats, but many go out on foot or on four-wheelers. That's risky because the wind can open cracks in the ice. This winter when that happened, people called 911, and with great expense, 21 government agencies responded.

Sheriff Bob Bratton of Ottawa County, Mich., was angry that people ignored the weather and then needed to be saved. "There's no section in the law about stupidity because they could all be arrested today for that," he said.

But fisherman Randy Hayes defended taking his four-wheeler onto the ice. "You take a chance every time you go out there," he said.


But on this day there was a strong off-shore wind, I reminded him.

"There's wind. There's cracks. It's just something you deal with."

"You're tying up emergency services," Sheriff Bratton said. "The helicopter that will be coming over from the Coast Guard? Four thousand dollars an hour."

The rescue cost more than $250,000.

The sheriff thinks -- and I agree -- that the fishermen should pay for their rescue. But Rick Ferguson, who owns a bait shop in the vicinity, told me, "We already pay that in the tax dollars that we pay."

Fisherman Joe Garverick, who was not among those who needed rescuing, agreed. "I'm not for paying if you get rescued in the woods. This is America, and I believe we all jump up. We help each other."

One rescued fishermen, Randy Hayes, said, "If you start charging people, people won't call when they truly do need help."

But that's bunk. New Hampshire charges reckless people who need help, and they still call 911 there.

Sparsely populated Grand County, Utah, which spent $5,000 to pull a jeep out of a crack in a canyon, started charging for rescues to protect its taxpayers. It has a hundred rescues a year because tourists come to participate in the extreme sports.

"I'm looking at the local taxpayer," says Sheriff Jim Nyland. "When people go out and do ridiculous things, I think they ought be held accountable."


He went after John Rushenberg, who needed rescuing while hiking a canyon -- in flip-flops. He was billed $2,000, but still has not paid.

"I don't want to pay," he told "20/20."

And get this: It wasn't Rushenberg's first time. A few years before, he and his friends had to be helped off a mountain. He laughed about it and said he hoped people watching my television special would chip in to pay his fine.

Give me a break. Why should other people chip in to pay for people who get themselves into trouble and need rescuing? They should take responsibility for the costs they impose on others.

As Herbert Spencer wisely said, "The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools."

If we start by billing drunken rock climbers who need rescuing, maybe we can convince Congress and the president to stop bailing out failed banks, insurance companies and automakers.

I won't hold my breath.

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